Transcendence: The Bangles and Sleater-Kinney

You can measure how irresistible the Bangles are by the number of days (now two and counting since I saw them play live) that they’ve had me humming a song I had been pretty sure I hated.

Their show at Irving Plaza in New York on Saturday night really got cooking about half an hour in, with a lovely rendition of Big Star’s September Gurls. No matter what you think of the Bangles, you can’t deny the fact that they are the greatest cover band ever, and it’s not particularly close.

Next they played several tunes, at once primal and shiny, from Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles!, a just-released, and excellent, compilation of early recordings. “From when we were baby Bangles,” said one of the ladies, and my inability to remember which one was speaking only testifies to the band’s egalitarianism — everybody sings, everybody harmonizes, everybody talks. Then came Hazy Shade of Winter, a Simon and Garfunkel song once upon a time, but the Bangles took possession of it long ago, with blistering guitar lines and harmonies well beyond the original (!), and they’re not giving it back. Another highlight, kicking off the encore, was How is the Air Up There, which mixed garage rock with punk with a jangling and joyous charm that is entirely the Bangles’ own. When you hear the band on record, they sometimes suffer from 80’s-style overproduction, but all the songs they played at Irving Plaza were reduced to their essence, and the band got all them across. I am not a fan of recording shows on video, but I couldn’t help filming a bit of this one, just to have a keepsake.

The band closed the show, inevitably I suppose, with Eternal Flame, their biggest hit and the Freebird of their universe, more or less. I assumed this would be a letdown, especially after the vitality of the main set: despite Susanna Hoffs’s committed vocal, Eternal Flame always struck me as overproduced mush, pure pop cheese. But there’s a reason people yell and flick their lighters and refuse to go home till they hear Freebird: everybody likes a sing-along. After an hour and a half of speeding down Bangle freeway together, it was time for band and audience to meld into a single whole, and the ladies were smart and confident enough to make that happen by slowing down the pace and ending with a group hug of a ballad. So drummer Debbi Peterson came out from behind her kit and joined her bandmates on guitar, polka dots of light swirled through the audience, the cheesy lyrics became a call to harmony inside the club (Close your eyes! Give me your hand!), and there was no way you could keep yourself from singing along. It was corny, genuinely warm, and fully earned, a glorious way to send a thousand people jammed tightly in a small space out into the New York night. Maybe the song is treacle, but now I can’t stop humming it.

I was still feeling the thrill of the Bangles show two days later when I remembered how another band had recently made me feel almost exactly the same way. It was Sleater-Kinney, the Bangles’ spiritual successors in more ways than one, who came back last year after an almost ten year hiatus, playing just as fiercely as ever. When I went to see them, they too had ripped through an hour and a half of take-no-prisoners rock and roll… and then slowed things down and ended the show with their ironic ballad, Modern Girl. Only they played it as a sing-along, audience and band joined into one just like they would at the Bangles’ show, and the song completely transcended its irony. When we all sang the chorus together — My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day! — everyone knew the line as written was a deeply cutting takedown of consumer culture, but at the same time, in that room, there was no way you could help feeling it really was a sunny day, with this band back in your life. The moment was lovely, warm, musical, joyous, and more than a little Bangle-esque.

2015 Top 10

I posted next to nothing here in the second half of last year, so here’s making up for lost time: here is a list of a few notable things I ran across over that period. I can’t resist stealing the format Greil Marcus uses for his monthly Real Life Rock Top 10 column, especially since he just published a book collecting all the columns he’s written over the years. Something to strive for.

1. Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog. In a year of decent-to-good memoirs by good-to-great musicians, this 80-minute meditation on memory, time, and loss was more powerful than the rest of them put together. There is a lot to say about this multilayered film, but two pieces in particular, one in the middle and one at the end, and neither one about dogs, truly blew me away. It would ruin the movie to give them away, but in the first, “A Story About a Story,” the artist, who’s been telling personal stories in one form or another for forty years, is brave enough to unpack and expose all the assumptions and poses behind the whole genre. And in the second, “The Lake,” she gives you a take on parent-child dynamics that my wife and I are still arguing about. Anderson’s work is always artistic and creative, but this film has an emotional rawness and a directness that feels like a brand new direction more than a summation. She was kind enough to stop by to chat at the screening that I attended, and I asked her if the “story about a story” episode in the middle of the film was indicative of a new outlook on storytelling as a whole. She said yes, in a way that made me think she was still figuring out the consequences, and that they would flow into her work for years to come. I can’t wait.

2. Mourning Sun, at the West End Theatre, NYC. Directed by my friend Ari Laura Kreith, this is a play about the fallout from the cycle of child marriage, rape, and pregnancy in Africa. You worry that an issue play might be didactic or artless, but there is a lot here that is artful, especially a scene late in the first act that brings the issue home in the most devastating terms.

You see a stark set on an almost bare stage, you see a young woman getting on a bus. The bus driver notices she smells like a bathroom, the woman explains it away: she just encountered someone incontinent, she says. She moves, unsteadily, to the back of the bus. The passengers around her rise up in disgust, the driver kicks her off the bus. She tries to get on another bus, and the cycle repeats. The woman has an obstetric fistula, a hole in her bladder, from when she was raped as a child bride, became pregnant, and went into prolonged labor that her body wasn’t mature enough to handle. Now she can’t stop peeing. She tries to get on a third bus, repeating the same painful dialogue, and by then you’re squirming in your seat, so uncomfortable that you think you might actually smell the urine in the theater.

3. Richard Thompson, “Fergus Lang.” I saw Richard Thompson play a great solo acoustic show at NJPAC in Newark in April, and the one new song that stayed with me was this caustic takedown of a not-at-all disguised Donald Trump figure. It was springtime then, months before Trump announced for president, and Thompson’s satire played mostly for laughs. “Fergus Lang (the Trump stand-in) has a fine head of hair,” Thompson sang in the chorus, “when the wind’s in the right direction.” In the moment, the song seemed totally over the top — but something changed later in the year, as Trump became the 2015 king of all media and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. When you hear “Fergus Lang” now, all you can do is shake your head that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Thompson may have a rich artistic imagination, but the real Fergus Lang has managed to imagine a kind of politics that even Thompson couldn’t dream up. If art is the expression of imagination, as Henry Moore said, then is Donald Trump also the frontrunner for the Grammy for New Artist of the Year?

4. Golden State Warriors and Kansas City Royals. Sports stories don’t have to be inspirational, and the good guys don’t always end up on top. But when the teams that play with the most joy end up winning it all, it’s beautiful to watch.

5. The Red Iguana, Salt Lake City, UT. Mexican is my comfort food, and this unassuming place in Salt Lake City had the best mole sauces, and probably the best Mexican food, that I’ve ever eaten. When you first come in, they give you a sample of eight moles, and you can have your meal made with any of them. I had a chile relleno with a combination of two sauces, and I still feel like I can taste them months later. I can’t imagine anything hitting the spot more after a long day’s drive across Utah.

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6. The Mekons, “Heaven and Back,” Bowery Ballroom, NYC. After a recent documentary expanded their cultural presence from hundreds of fans to possibly thousands, the Mekons toured this summer to larger crowds than usual, and on this night in July, the Bowery was packed. The band responded with fierce intensity, cutting out much of the usual banter between songs, and reminding you that no matter what you knew or thought you knew about them, they were a great rock and roll band first. They even brought out the high leg kicks for “Heaven and Back”… and then Rico fell backwards into Jon’s guitar amp, some of the sound went out, and the song disintegrated into three minutes of archetypal inter-Mekon insults, sarcasm, and laughter. Hard as they may try, they can’t escape being hilarious. Then everybody picked themselves up and tore into the next number. It was as perfectly Mekonic as you can get.

7. Sleater-Kinney, “Was it a Lie,” Kings Theatre, NYC. The opening notes echoed the better-known “Jumpers,” S-K’s other death-themed song, which the band had ripped through near the beginning of the set. But while “Jumpers” stands in direct opposition to its subject matter, as perhaps the most life-affirming song you’ll ever hear, “Was it a Lie” is a lot harder to pin down. It is complex, and subtle, and what makes it work is the astonishing delicacy and empathy of Corin Tucker’s vocal. This one is for everyone who makes the mistake of thinking of Tucker mainly as a screamer.

8. Sleater-Kinney, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Kings Theater, NYC. One of the band’s few false moves on this December night was a rushed rendition of one of their early statement cuts, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” It didn’t ring true because it came across like a standard rock number, without any of the mystery, emotion, and slow self-discovery of the original version. The otherworldly shrieks that began the chorus were reduced to simple yells, the band calling happily to their audience, no longer the involuntary sounds of a woman alone in a room, discovering, step by step, the power of her voice. The song didn’t seem relevant for the band anymore.

Then, when the band came back out for their encore, Carrie announced, “We know it’s Hanukkah,” (and indeed a menorah rested on top of her amp), “but we’re going to play a Christmas song.”

What came next turned out to be a slightly obscure mid-period piece by those same Ramones. If you’ve never heard it, that’s because it’s not that notable: the original is hedged, campy, and plays largely for laughs. But S-K changed the terms of the song. Carrie put down her guitar, caressed the mic and slithered over the stage just like Joey Ramone used to, but with a seriousness of purpose that was all Sleater-Kinney. When she wished you “Merry, merry, MERRY Christmas,” she held you by the scruff of your neck; when she called out, “I don’t want to fight tonight!” her voice was filled with desperation, but also a keen awareness of her own capability. It was crystal clear, in that moment, why “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” had sounded obsolete earlier: the band was already your Joey Ramone, and much, much more.

Meanwhile, alone in a small town basement somewhere, a thin, quiet, completely straight-eyed 14-year old was trying out voices that she might use to let you know how much she wanted to be your Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Fucking Weiss. Shoulders of giants.

9. Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Two sequels to beloved sci-fi trilogies from the late 70’s and early 80’s with more than a few parallels. Both series were known for a grimier than usual picture of the universe, for one thing, and in both cases the second film in the trilogy was clearly the best and the third was relatively weak, for another. (In one case there was also a set of prequels that nobody wants to talk about, so I won’t either.) Seeing the Star Wars film was like seeing a band you used to like as a kid getting back together after twenty years and delivering a crowd-pleasing show of their hits, all the old formulas working as well as ever. Which might seem like enough, until you see Sleater-Kinney, or Fury Road.

10. Lou Reed, “Turning Time Around.”A late 90’s composition by Laurie Anderson’s late husband, played over the closing credits of Heart of a Dog, fitting the moment so perfectly that you couldn’t believe it wasn’t written specifically for the movie. Weren’t Lou and Laurie in the studio together working on it, going over sounds and timing and exactly how the credits would roll over the track?